BY JEFFREY KOPP
Canvas, paint bottles, brushes and booze. While that last one may be unconventional for a painting class, it’s enticing some New Yorkers to get creative and try their hand at an activity some haven’t done since junior high.
Debra Stelnik, a painter who works mostly with acrylics, has been teaching painting classes that double as a cocktail hour, which she calls her “Art Soirées,” since 2012. She hosts them in bars, beer gardens and restaurants in Chelsea, the Upper East Side and Upper West Side.
The not-so-typical art-class setting appeals to people who want to learn how to paint in a low-pressure environment rather that within an art studio, where the burden of perfection might be greater. The classes, then, also double as socials. New arrivals to the city, eager to meet others, attend. So do some who just want an activity to bring friends along to that’s not strictly centered around a standard happy hour.
“It’s great because you can socialize and meet people while learning something really fun. I’m amazed at what I’ve done!” said Bob Wicke, a longtime West Village resident, who has become a regular at Stelnik’s classes. “I would be really intimidated at an art studio. I once went to a drawing class at the MoMA and everyone was so quiet. This is much more fun.”
Leah Flaunty, who moved to New York from London a few weeks ago, attended one of Stelnik’s classes in July month, mostly to meet new people as well as to take a class she was interested in that didn’t involve any serious preparation. “I’m into art and I’d always fancied doing it. The social aspect is great, and they provide everything, so it’s a good place to start out,” she said. a glass of sparkling wine within reach.
Stelnik, who has a degree in fine art from Brooklyn College and attended The Art Students League and The School of Visual Arts, provides materials and prepares for her classes by selecting a painting of hers she thinks the class can imitate. She draws an outline of its subject on each canvas, which gives students a discernible guideposts. She said that students could feel lost when she used blank canvasses.
“It was sort of a learning experience for me, too,” she said of the classes. “I just jumped in to this but I needed to know how to teach people and alleviate their nerves. I even took a public speaking class so that I could teach more effectively. At this point it’s really an evolution of four years of working with hundreds of people that I’m able to do this the way I do now.”
On a recent evening at Madison Square Tavern, on West 30th Street in Chelsea, once students got themselves an adult beverage, Stelnik quickly taught everyone the basics: how to mix colors, how to use a sponge to paint a background, and how to add detail with their brushes.
What started as selling tickets to friends for a BYOB painting class in an apartment quickly turned into a business. When Stelnik realized the class had a wider appeal, she started advertising online and holding the classes in larger locations. She now has a group on Meetup.com, a website for people to meet to learn, do, or share just about anything, with nearly 3,000 members. Classes usually cost $35, not including drinks.
As a small businesses owner, it also works well for her, too, because of the convenience of using someone else’s space; most of the cleaning and drink service is done by the bar. It’s also great business for the bars she works with.
“If you get nervous, the bar’s right there!” she said at a recent class before turning the stereo up and allowing students to have a drink, chat and, of course, paint.